Suits debuts tonight on USA at 10 p.m. Eastern with a pilot that will run an hour-and-a-half.
Here’s what should be an iron-clad rule of TV writing: If you’re going to say your protagonist is super awesome at something, there should be a scene of him demonstrating this skill in the pilot. This is easy enough if you’re writing, say, a superhero pilot, because then all you need to do is show the guy flying or running fast or something. But it’s much, much harder in a pilot where the guy is supposed to have a skill that derives entirely from being clever or charming. Think back on the pilot for Mad Men. Remember how the show set up Don Draper as the ultimate pitchman in that episode? Lots of people talked about his ability, but that didn’t feel annoying because we’d already gotten a little taste of it in the scene where he talks to the waiter about why he smokes the cigarettes he smokes. And then we got the full Draper in the scene with the Lucky Strike people. Too many pilots don’t give us the Full Draper.
You can tell the creator of Suits, Aaron Korsh, has been studying up but hasn’t quite learned all of the tricks from the better series, a rather suitable analogy for a show about a young man trying hard to keep up with an older man and staying one step behind. Like Mad Men, Suits opens with a scene where we get to see the protagonist—Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht)—in his element. He’s supposed to be one of the top closers in Manhattan, the guy who helps everybody at his firm make sure the job gets done. And now he’s dealing with a contractual dispute where one party refuses to budge because of a personal animosity toward the other party. He enters the room, he dominates it, he tells a lie, and he wins by out-alpha-maling the other guy. It’s not a bad scene, though the consequences of it land Harvey in deep shit a few moments later. But it’s the only scene in the entire first two episodes that gives us any indication that Harvey is as good at this as everybody says he is. Suits only gives us a Half Draper. Telling us something is easy; showing us something is much, much harder.
Take, for instance, Harvey’s new associate, Mike Ross (Patrick J. Adams). Mike’s a guy who got derailed on his path to becoming a lawyer by some untimely cheating in college. Mike, see, has a photographic memory—a photographic memory that’s portrayed more as a basically unchecked superpower in the pilot, then barely mentioned in episode two—and using that memory, he’s able to memorize huge swathes of information (mostly about the law), incorporate them into his knowledge base, and use them to his own personal gain. We’re introduced to him passing a law school exam for some schmuck. We later learn he passed the New York bar exam on a dare, even though he never went to law school. When Harvey takes a chance on him after running into him by chance and being impressed by the kid’s moxie, as it were, he sends him to take the Harvard Law School tour because he knows Mike will know enough about the place to fool anyone into believing he went there.
Now, despite the obvious ridiculousness of this whole idea, the show takes great pains to set up Mike’s abilities quickly and handily. You’ve got the scene where he remembers all of Harvard Law. You’ve got the scene where he quotes back a law book to Harvey verbatim. And you’ve got—in the best sequence in any episode—a scene where he uses his memory to evade capture by the cops while making a drop-off for a drug dealer best friend. (Mike, see, needs money to help care for his ailing grandmother, played by Wings’ Rebecca Schull, so he takes on this dangerous assignment as a last-ditch effort to make that money.) How Mike evades the cops and how it ends up hooking him up with Harvey is clever and fun, and it promises a show that might be a cut above the standard USA formula, which grew tired long ago.
Sadly, after Mike and Harvey meet up, the show starts to slide downhill, first just a bit, then more rapidly. The first half of tonight’s extra-long episode (which is extra-long because that’s how USA likes it, for whatever reason) focuses on Mike and Harvey’s different living situations and the unlikely events that bring them together. The second half—and next week’s second episode—is just a standard legal drama, where the case of the week is even less interesting than something like Franklin & Bash. A woman has been sexually harassed. Harvey doesn’t want to take the pro-bono case because it’s beneath him. Mike comes to care too much. There’s a moment of darkness. Someone says something that makes Harvey think of something else, and everything heads off in another direction. (Both episodes feature a moment like this, where a completely innocuous comment makes Harvey think of something that just might win the case. It’s a very irritating kind of TV crutch, and the show needs to stop using it.)
But despite all of the boring, predictable legal stuff, there were some things I liked in Suits. In particular, I’m a sucker for the material featuring Mike, whose life of borderline existence that abruptly becomes the life of a high-roller is well portrayed. Adams is a real find as Mike, and his scenes are the best in the pilot. I’m less enamored of Harvey and the intrigue around the rest of the office, but I am glad that the show doesn’t feel the need to cram a Burn Notice-esque mythology into the middle of everything else. This is just a show about guys from two different backgrounds who work together at a law firm and will probably become friends somewhere along the way. It doesn’t need to push too hard for more than that. (Also, while we’re listing positives, the title sequence is pretty damn cool.)
The rest of the cast is mostly wasted. Gina Torres is here as Jessica, one of the firm’s partners, but there’s no good reason for a woman who created indelible TV characters on both Firefly and Huge to be relegated to a role so thankless and tiny. (At one point, it seems like the show might be setting her up to be nothing more than Harvey’s love interest, things are so dire.) Meghan Markle is kind of fun as Rachel, a super-smart paralegal who, nonetheless, doesn’t take tests well and ends up as Mike’s love interest, but she utterly disappears from the pilot with about 30 minutes to go, and she’s not really missed, all the same. Finally, Rick Hoffman turns up as Louis Litt, kind of an eager puppy of evil, and the character is woefully misconceived and ill-used, constantly trying to out alpha-male Harvey but being so self-evidently bad at it that it’s a wonder the show tries to hold him up as a credible threat. In addition, the pilot introduces a whole bunch of characters it seems like we'll have to care about, but by episode two, they're mostly gone, including the grandma. This is typical USA pilot stuff, but it's still kind of dumb to make your show seem more complex than it actually is.
I probably slightly prefer Suits to the surprisingly similar USA legal drama Fairly Legal (though this show doesn’t have a performance as good as Sarah Shahi’s on that show), but I’m also worried by the fact that next week’s episode doesn’t bother playing up many of the show’s strongest elements, like the easy chemistry between Adams and Macht, instead keeping them apart and wedging them inorganically into their own storylines. And the second episode also doesn’t bother doing much with Mike’s photographic memory at all, indeed, making him seem kind of idiotic at times. Suits is obviously a show that needs a little shaping up here and there, but the choices made between the pilot and episode two don’t much increase my confidence at all. It’s as though the show, already pretty generic, right down to the title, decided to take the few original elements and make them even blander, and it doesn’t inspire faith in what the series might be capable of.